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Posts Tagged ‘President James Madison’

As June of 1812 started, President James Madison had asked Congress for a declaration of war against the British.  We’ve discussed the reasons before, so we won’t spend a ton of time on them.  The British were arming Native Americans, who then used that hardware to kill Americans.  The British were capturing U.S. ships and forcing their captives to fight on British ships.  The British were blockading France, preventing U.S. trade with an important ally.

Some (or all) of these things had been going on for years, and for years the U.S. government had been negotiating with the British.  But the last set of concessions, sent from London in June of 1811, were deemed by Madison (and most everyone else) as dishonorable at best and, in the worst case, totally humiliating.  War was all but inevitable.

The mid-term elections, held in November of 1811, had seen a “War Hawk” Congress elected by the people.  But the military structure to fight a war was almost completely non-existent.  Long gone from the scene was the “strong government” influence of men like Alexander Hamilton.  As we recall, he had pushed hard for a solid military, particularly a navy.  But this was not popular with President Jefferson, nor his successor, President Madison, who feared a government with too much power.  So the military languished.  Furthermore, Hamilton’s Bank of the U.S., with its 20-year charter, had been allowed to expire, so even raising money to build a navy or hire soldiers was nearly impossible.

But the British affronts could not be overlooked.  Madison’s request for war was approved by the House just three days after it was submitted.  The Senate, on the other hand, deliberated for nearly two weeks.  Sir Augustus John Foster, a friend of the President from years past and the British Foreign Minister, fully expected the Senate to knuckle under and vote against war.  In fact, he did his part for his country by having an aide keep Virginia’s Senator Brent (who apparently had a penchant for alcohol he couldn’t hold) too drunk to vote.  But each day, Brent staggered into the chamber to vote for war.

Debate raged back and forth, and it was a near thing on numerous occasions.  On June 17, 1812, the Senate finally voted 19-13 for a declaration of war.  Though confident his country would win the war, Foster knew he’d lost his battle.  Coincidentally, the 17th fell on a Wednesday, and that afternoon Foster found himself, as was often the case, at Dolley Madison’s Drawing Rooms social.  He bowed to the President and exchanged some chit-chat, while finding Madison looking extremely pale, weighed down by the course he would now have to take.

President Madison was criticized for his desire to avoid war.  The War Hawk Congress, and many citizens that voted them into office, believed the President dragged his feet way longer than was necessary.  But such was not the case.  Madison wanted as much time as possible to prepare the country for the rigors of a war it, ultimately, barely won, and build as much consensus as possible.

Ralph Ketcham offers a wonderful summation in his biography of Madison.  He writes, “Madison’s course during the year preceding the war declaration…appears straight and consistent, if not always wise and well executed.  He thought throughout that his goal, a genuine, republican independence for the United States, found its worst menace in the commercial and maritime arrogance and power of Great Britain.  To have submitted to her unilateral decrees, her discriminatory trade regulations, or her naval outrages would have restored the colonial dependence Madison had fought for half a century.  It would, moreover, have ratified unjust principles in international law and emboldened antirepublican forces in Britain and the United States, thus threatening, in Madison’s opinion, the survival of free government anywhere in the world.

I have to continue with just a couple more sentences.  “But so corrosive was war to republican principles that only the direst emergency could condone it.  Thus Madison tried every conceivable and even some inconceivable ways of peaceful resistance, until many…thought him hopelessly irresolute…

The next day, the United States, led by a deeply saddened Madison, declared war on the British.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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When President Washington took the oath of office for the first time, political parties didn’t really exist.  Well, they sort of did, in the sense that groups of people (and therefore, groups of politicians) held different views of how this infant governmental experiment should work.

By the time John Adams had taken office, there were two pretty well-defined parties, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  What’s rather humorous is that members of each party still believed there was only one party…their own.  The other party was considered to a break-away faction, a group of naughty boys that needed a good spanking to be brought back in line.

When Jefferson’s tenure as President ended, members of the two parties pretty much wouldn’t talk to each other about their differences.  The divide was growing more pronounced.  These days, Republicans and Democrats in Congress squawk at each other from the relative safety of the microphone and dais.  In Jefferson’s day, opposing politicians occasionally fought each other with fists, and “pistols at 20 paces” wasn’t out of the question.

Against this backdrop, James Madison took office as the fourth President.

The First Lady, Dolley, wasn’t much into the whole fighting thing.  In fact, she wasn’t a fan of conflict at all.  But she liked to entertain and, apparently, she liked to decorate as well.  And both of these came together quite nicely on this day in history.  When the Madisons moved into the White House, it was entering its second decade of service to the First Family.  They decided the place could use some sprucing up.

The process of redecorating began and, as the end of May approached, enough progress had been achieved for Dolley to plan something of a party.  On May 31, 1809 (which happened to be a Wednesday), guests were treated to the first White House “drawing rooms” gathering.

In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketcham described the occasion.  “Congressmen and their wives, socially prominent Washingtonians, visiting belles, and foreign emissaries crowded the White House rooms for a glimpse of the new furnishings and the new presidential pair.  Military music filled the house, and the guests helped themselves from buffets loaded with punch, cookies, ice cream, and fruit.

Here, members of opposing political viewpoints actually put their differences aside to engage in pleasant conversation while listening to music and eating their favorite goodies.  It helped to build a bit of camaraderie between highly volatile factions.  In her biography of the fourth First Lady, Catherine Allgor goes so far as to say, “If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government.”  That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly, men were more civilized in their dealings with each other.

The event was a tremendous success, and Dolley was roundly praised for her elegance and hospitality.  The Wednesday “drawing rooms” became a regular occurrence.  A single room came to be the State Dining room and the attached parlor (today’s Red Room) along with another room.  Over time, attendance mushroomed to several hundred guests and a new, possibly more appropriate name – “Wednesday Squeezes” – came into being.

The Wednesday event continued until the White House was burned by the British…on a Wednesday.  The story goes that Dolley was awaiting the arrival of guests when word came that the list be dominated by a gaggle of British soldiers.  She grabbed what she could, left the dinner on the table, and got out.

Recommended Reading:  A Perfect Union:  Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

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It wasn’t the White House, because it didn’t yet exist.  It was the Capitol building, because it didn’t yet exist, either.  And it wasn’t even Washington, D.C. because, well, that property still belonged to the states of Maryland and Virginia.  But when we think of a Presidential inauguration, all of those places are usually top of mind.  In 1789, however, they were completely out of mind.  So New York City provided the locale, and City Hall provided the venue for the very first Presidential inauguration.

George Washington was a very nervous man; probably way more nervous than when he had spoken his wedding vows.  He had been unanimously nominated to lead a new country with a new charter and a completely new form of government.  He had spent the winter talking about how he was unqualified to lead, even while the country believed, almost without exception, that he was the most capable man to do so.  His wife, Martha, didn’t really look forward to being First Lady.  In fact, in his biography of the First President, Ron Chernow writes that Mrs. Washington “talked about the presidency as an indescribable calamity that had befallen her.

Regardless of feelings, there was no backing out now.  Vice President Adams, in front of the First Congress, turned to the President-elect and said, “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the constitution.

Washington stepped out onto the balcony shortly after noon on April 30, 1789 to an immense roar and took the oath.  Though not required, a committee thought it appropriate, at the eleventh hour, to have the President place his hand on a Bible.  But where to find one?  In the end, a local Masonic Lodge provided its Masonic Bible and Washington was administered the oath.

Then the President addressed the crowd.  Again, this was not required by the Constitution, but it seemed right.  Washington’s original speech, written by David Humphreys, spent too much time defending his decision to accept the Presidency.  It spent too much time talking about his faith in the American people (not necessarily a bad thing).  It spent too much time downplaying any form of dynasty (Washington was childless, after all).  It delved too close (and again, at too great a length) to legislative matters for executive branch comfort.  In fact, at seventy-three pages, it spent too much time on everything.

When Washington sent the speech to James Madison for his thoughts, he promptly tossed it out and wrote a much more succinct address that steered clear of legislative issues, which the President readily accepted and delivered.

Washington had become a household name in the Colonies during the French and Indian War.  He had become the hero of the American Revolution.  He had been a calming force (though he barely spoke) at the critical and sometimes contentious Constitutional Convention.  And now he was the President, chosen by the people (by a wide margin) and the Electoral College (by unanimous consent).

Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life

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It’s Thanksgiving Eve, and while it may not carry the same weight as Christmas Eve, it’s reason enough to keep things brief.

For President James Madison, 1814 had not been a particularly kind year.  The same could be said for most of the fledgling Union over which Madison served as Commander-in-Chief.  The war with Britain (the second of Madison’s life when you consider the War of Independence) was not going very well.  The nation’s capital was no longer smoking, but it was a ruin thanks to British torches.  War Secretary Armstrong had been summarily sacked by an irate Madison.

Politics was rearing its ugly head, with New England governors refusing to allow their state militias to be used for national defense.  The ballot box had not been Madison’s friend, either.  Mid-term elections had seen the Federalist Party, largely marginalized since John Adams left office, make significant gains.

Then there were the British who, in addition to the war itself, were working hard to sway the New England states to break away from the southern states (especially those pesky Virginians) and reestablish ties to the mother country.  Citizens were smuggling goods to the enemy and colluding with them.

And to add injury to all the insult, Madison was ill again.  The heat and humidity of Washington, D.C.’s summer and fall never agreed with the President.  He often spent much of that time back at home.  But this year had been different, and Madison was paying a physical price.

On November 23, 1814, the news got worse.  Vice President Elbridge Gerry had died of a lung hemorrhage while riding in his carriage to the Senate.  Gerry had been a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.  And while he initially voted against the Constitution, he eventually became a strong supporter.  During his time as the governor of Massachusetts, he supported a redistricting bill that not only took on his name (gerrymandering), but also cost him re-election.  And now he was gone.

The rejuvenated Federalists smelled blood.  One of them would write, “If Mr. President Madison would resign now that Mr. Gerry is no more, a president of the Senate might be chosen, who would . . . do honor to the nation.”

Gerry’s death had transformed James Madison from the President to a Federalist target.

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“For Eliza Hamilton, the collapse of her world was total, overwhelming, and remorseless.  Within three years, she had had to cope with four close deaths:  her eldest son, her sister Peggy, her mother, and her husband, not to mention the mental breakdown of her eldest daughter.”

So begins the epilogue to Ron Chernow’s sweeping and masterful biography of Alexander Hamilton.  The first five years of the 19th century were hard for the wife of our nation’s first Treasury Secretary.  But her life was far from over, and the strength she displayed after the sudden death of Alexander more than matched that of her first forty-seven years.

She worked hard to preserve her husband’s legacy, particularly as the Federalist party faded from prominence and then disappeared altogether in the 1820s.  She gathered his notes and questioned his contemporaries extensively in an effort to keep his achievements alive.  When no one stepped forward to write a biography, she tapped her son John Church Hamilton to perform the arduous task.

She possessed a deep well of forgiveness for her husband’s disastrous affair with Maria Reynolds, but much less so for James Monroe, whom she blamed for leaking the story.  Thirty years after the fact, the former President paid her a visit, hoping that time had taken away the sting of her hurts.  Her cool response was, “Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it.  But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.”

But this devoutly religious widow did more than protect Alexander’s legacy.  She spent much time serving orphans and widows herself, cofounding (in 1806) the first private orphanage in New York, where for many years she was one of its directors.  She worked tirelessly to keep the orphanage funded and keep the financial records straight (a talent she may have learned from Alexander?).

Much of this good work was done while she had little means of support herself.  Alexander had died with a sizeable debt, which flew in the face of Anti-federalist accusations that he “stole from the government coffers” and had secret British-funded bank accounts.  In fact, as a veteran of the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton had refused not only the pension to which he was entitled as an officer, but also the parcels of land promised to officers.  He did this because, as a member of Congress, he wanted no one to accuse him of bias when he addressed the issue of veterans’ compensation.  Following his death, Eliza had received these allocations from President Madison as back payments.

She finally left the Grange and settled with her now-widowed daughter in Washington, D.C.  At 91, she still remained lucid and full of life.  She worked with Dolley Madison to raise money for construction of the Washington Monument, and enjoyed the company of many who stopped at her parlor to marvel at one of the last remaining witnesses to the American Revolution.

She kept her wits until the end, along with her strong faith and her love and devotion to Alexander.  And on November 9, 1854, this 97-year old wonder entered her eternal rest, as the nation her husband worked so hard to bring together catapulted itself toward fracture and destruction.

Eliza was laid to rest next to Alexander, who had departed more than a half century before.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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Let’s pick up where we left off the other day with President Madison’s return to (what was left of) Washington, D.C.  The next day (the 28th of August if you’re following the chronology), the Commander-in-Chief got his first look at the devastation.  He described the White House as “in ashes, not an inch but its cracked and blackened walls remained.”  The Capitol was in a similar condition.  “Those beautiful pillars in that Representatives Hall were cracked and broken, the roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath the smouldering ruins…”

Madison spent the day encouraging the troops and the citizens, telling them to put off despair and gloom.  There was even an impromptu parade of sorts when Dolley returned to town in a borrowed carriage.

Such was not the welcome for War Secretary John Armstrong.  His handling of the city’s defense had been abyssmal.  He had insisted that the British would be targeting Baltimore, which he (correctly) felt was a far more important military target.  But the President (and others) believed that D.C. was the symbolic target the British would seek.  Even when the British came ashore just 35 miles from the capital, still Armstrong insisted that they would make for Baltimore.

For weeks, Armstrong did almost nothing to provide for the capitol’s defense.  In his biography of Madison, Ralph Ketcham writes that “The Secretary of War argued with state militia officers and attended to every detail except the defense of Washington…”

But the issues with Armstrong ran deeper.  In a year filled with bad military news, the War Secretary’s actions were worse still.  Ketcham summarizes it as the “accumulating evidence of Armstrong’s deceit, insubordination, and incompetence.”  He continues, “In May 1814, when Madison was at Montpelier, Armstrong had kept news from the President and had written inaccurate and unauthorized dispatches to insure the retirement of General Harrison, and, aat the same time, make it seem that Madison had tried to block the promotion of Andrew Jackson.”  He had usurped the President’s authority numerous times on military matters, displayed terrible communication skills, and generally poor leadership.

The citizens of Washington blamed Armstrong for its sacking and numerous officers and enlisted men refused to serve with the War Secretary any longer.  His departure was imminent, and the President made it official on August 29, 1814, when he forced John Armstrong’s retirement, essentially firing him.

Our nation’s fourth President would replace him with our nation’s eventual fifth President – James Monroe.

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Today was a beautiful day.  Bright sunshine, a few clouds, low humidity, and temps around 80.  I’m not sure I could have ordered a better day.  Meanwhile, the East Coast is battening down the hatches as Hurricane Irene has come ashore and is working its misery.  As I type, New York City is in the crosshairs.  I hope my good friend Michael (who lives in Rhode Island and founded Today’s History Lesson) and a couple other good friends in the area will be alright.

At this time in 1814, it was the nation’s capitol that was the center of attention.  It wasn’t a hurricane that was approaching, but one that had just departed.  Actually, it was a two-headed hurricane.  The first was the literal storm that blew in, chasing the attacking British back to their ships.  The second head belonged to the British themselves, who landed just in front of the storm and stuck around long enough to burn down the White House, the Capitol building (including the Library of Congress), both houses of Congress, and numerous other buildings.

The U.S. government had scattered before the British onslaught.  The night the city was sacked, President Madison and his wife planned to meet, along with others, at Wiley’s Tavern near the Great Falls.  But the President ended up at the home of Reverend John Maffitt.  Dolley, just a mile away, bedded down at the home of her friend Matilda Love.

As we know, the British stay in the capitol was short-lived, and Madison soon received word of their departure.  It was time to reclaim the capital.  Shortly after 5:00pm on August 27, 1814, the President re-entered D.C. with James Monroe and Richard Rush.  Much had changed in 3 days, and the rebuilding would take years.  There was a tremendous explosion later in the evening as Fort Washington, for some reason, was blown up by its commander.

The good news was that the President was back in Washington.  But though he would be elected to a second term, he and Dolley would not again sleep in the White House.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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